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I love this music. Listen to it at odd moments. Have my own list of favorites: Mississippi Fred McDowell,

Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Blind Willie McTell and, for sure, Robert Johnson.



Listening to the Blues Is a Duty and Responsibility

 Music Commentary by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam



Thanks in part to a sale on boxed sets at Borders I’ve been listening to a lot of blues lately. I have to say, I’m getting quite the education. I’m finally hearing many songs that I’ve only known as inspiration for other songs and even better than that I’m discovering entire sub-genres that I hadn’t previously known even existed.

I’m not sure what to call the sub-genre that includes songs like Furry Lewis’ “When My Baby Left Me.” Haunted country blues? Ghost acoustic folk? The overall tone is dark and cold, but Lewis’ acoustic guitar shimmers like broken glass caught in a sudden streak of light. And the lyrics are every bit as fascinating as the guitar playing. Lewis sings things like, “She caught the rumbling and I caught the falling down.” Grammatically and logically the line makes no sense but that doesn’t stop you from knowing exactly what he means. I’d be less intrigued by a song like this if it were some sort of lone accident. But apparently there’s a whole slew of tunes like “When My Baby Left Me.” In fact, Lewis’ entry into the blues’ ephemeral side came quite late. Lewis cut “When My Baby Left Me” in 1961 after a nearly thirty-year absence from recording during which time he is said to have made a living as a Memphis street sweeper.

If blues compilations didn’t have liner notes, I’d never have known Lewis’ recording was done in the 60s because When My Baby Left Me” sounds an awful lot like records such as Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” and Robert ‘Barbecue Bob’ Hicks’ “Motherless Chile Blues, both of which date back to pre-Depression times.

I like both McTell’s and Hicks’ records for the way they mix bravado with vulnerability, not just lyrically but also in the way the two bluesmen perform their vocals. Both Hicks and McTell have big, commanding voices and charisma to spare. But they also both have a keening, shrill way of ending their notes that makes them sound sad and lonely as opposed to just pissed off. At times, their way of singing sounds like the 1920s equivalent of the male falsetto from soul ballads of the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this slow and spooky type of blues tune is Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” According to the liner notes of The Blues: A Musical Journey, Johnson wasn’t a bluesman at all, rather he “was an evangelist, pure and simple.” Throughout his career, Johnson is said to have sung nothing but devotional music. “Dark Was The Night” has no lyrics, but the liner notes say that’s only because the hymn was so well known at the time that everyone who might’ve heard the song already knew the words. “Chilling and immortal” is the way the author sums up this performance from 1927. Given that: a) this is the most ominous-sounding ‘gospel’ record I’ve ever heard, and b) it’s 80 years later and we’re still talking about it, I’d have to say both parts of the description are accurate.

Get your ‘acoustic ghost blues’ tracks here:


Furry Lewis – “When My Baby Left Me” – Originally from Back On My Feet Again (Prestige/Bluesville, 1961); Reissued on Shake ‘Em On Down (Fantasy, 1972)

Blind Willie McTell – “Statesboro Blues” – Originally issued as a 78rpm single (Victor, 1928); Available on The Best Of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo, 2004)

Robert ‘Barbecue Bob’ Hicks – “Motherless Chile Blues” – Originally issued as a 78rpm single (Columbia, 1927); Available on The Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (Document, 1991)

Blind Willie Johnson – “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” – Originally issued as a 78rpm single (Columbia, 1927); Available on Dark Was The Night (Sony, 1998)

Or if you want to go the ‘embarrassment of riches’ route, do like I did and pick up The Blues: A Musical Journey. It’s a five-CD boxed set that includes “Statesboro Blues,” “Dark Was The Night” and 114 other classic blues recordings.—Mtume ya Salaam


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Back in the day

Way back, back during what they call pre-War times (meaning, of course, World War II), back when Jim Crow was flying high, back then, if you was born in the South, the blues was your birth certificate. From back then there was created what was called the country blues. Ragtime preceded what we know today as the country blues. But Ragtime got smashed in the aftermath of the destruction of Reconstruction.

I love this music. Listen to it at odd moments. Have my own list of favorites: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Blind Willie McTell and, for sure, Robert Johnson. All of them playing acoustic guitar and talk-singing about real life, real times, real people. Even when they be lying, they be singing the truth.

I’m going to throw in another Furry Lewis (“God Be With Us Till We Meet Again”) and another Blind Willie McTell (“Dying Crapshooter’s Blues").

Blind Willie McTell is a master storyteller, would say “griot” but that is so obvious it goes without saying. I’ve got at least thirty of his songs on my hard drives (yes, I back up all of my music). The man was a monster: he was blind but literate. Learned to read both writing and music in braille. He is not famous but ought to be.

Furry Lewis on the other hand had a way of playing the guitar as though he was ventriloquist speaking through his git-fiddle. Unlike Blind Willie, Furry is well known.

I was not that familiar with Barbeque Bob. Had heard the name and sampled a little bit of his music but was not deep into it. This selection makes me want to look him up for further investigation.

Blind Willie Johnson puts me in mind of Rev. Gary Davis who played both sacred and secular music. Whereas Davis has a bunch of releases, I’ve only found a handful of songs by Johnson.

For sure, we’ve got a bunch more blues coming in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you, Mtume, for peeking backwards. As we get older we have a greater appreciation for the past, for our roots, for all that came before and helped us along. And what a great joy to learn about aspects of our intimate history, aspects about which we were previously oblivious.

Listening to the blues is a duty of every conscious black American, a duty and responsibility, and a joyful undertaking once we open to the hard history of what spirit-propelled us round the bend from where we had been on the hard highway to this troubled place we now stagger forward from. Or should I say, this now-time place we hope to survive. Or something. By the grace of God (or whatever it is we believe in), fifty years from now, some of the music we leave behind will be as roots relevant to our future as these blues are to our current conflicted condition. —Kalamu ya Salaam


Source: Breath of Life

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Charley Patton (1891-1934)

Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll


Charlie Patton born Mississippi, April 1891 was an experienced performer of songs before he was twenty years old and was first recorded (Thankfully) in 1929. His influence is everywhere and was arguably the first of the greats. An influence on Son House, Tommy Johnson, Bukka White and without doubt Howlin' Wolf. We have to thank archivists, the likes of Harry Smith, that we can hear these inimitable songs today.

Some people tell me, oversea blues ain't bad

It must not been the oversea blues I had

Everyday seem like murder here

(My god, I'm no sheriff)

I'm going to leave tomorrow,

I know you don't bid my care

I ain't going down no dirt road by myself

If I don't carry my rider, going to carry someone else

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I'm going away to where I'm known

I'm worried now but I won't be worried long

My rider got somethin' she try to keep it hid

Lord, I got somethin' find that somethin' with

I feel like chopping, chips flying everywhere

I've been to the Nation, lord, but I couldn't stay there

Charlie Patton was the first great Delta bluesman; from him flowed nearly all the elements that would comprise the region's blues style. Patton had a coarse, earthy voice that reflected hard times and hard living. His guitar style—percussive and raw—matched his vocal delivery. He often played slide guitar and gave that style a position of prominence in Delta blues.

Patton's songs were filled with lyrics that dealt with issues like social mobility (pony Blues), imprisonment (“High Sheriff Blues”), nature (“High Water Blues”), and morality (“Oh Death”) that went far beyond traditional male-female relationship themes. Patton defined the life of a bluesman. He drank and smoked excessively. He reportedly had a total of eight wives. He was jailed at least once. He traveled extensively, never staying in one place for too long.

Charley Patton was "the" delta blues man of course, his playing was raw and expressive, a distinctive style, rather dissident to the other blues players of the time. A monument !

The Dockery farm was the sawmill and cotton plantation where Charley and his family lived from 1900 onwards.

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Charley PattonSpoonful Blues (A song about cocaine, 1929)

Spoonful Blues

(spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)
In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'
The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout a . . .
It's all I want, in this creation is a . . .
I go home (spoken: wanna fight!) 'bout a . . .
Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs !)
just 'bout a . . .
These women goin' crazy every day in their life 'bout a . . .
Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will!) just 'bout a . . .
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my...
(spoken: Don't take me long!) to get my . . .
Hey baby, you know I need my . . .
It's mens on Parchman (done lifetime) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I ain't long) 'bout my. . .
It's all I want (spoken: honey, in this creation) is a . . .
I go to bed, get up and wanna fight 'bout a . . .
(spoken: Look-y here, baby, would you slap me? Yes I will!) just 'bout a...
Hey baby,
(spoken: you know I'm a fool a-)
'bout my . . .

Would you kill a man?
(spoken: Yes I would, you know I'd kill him)
just 'bout a . . .
Most every man (spoken: that you see is)
fool 'bout his...
(spoken: You know baby, I need)
that ol' . . .Hey baby,
(spoken: I wanna hit the judge 'bout a)
'bout a . . .
(spoken: Baby, you gonna quit me? Yeah honey!)
just 'bout a . . .
It's all I want, baby, this creation is a...
(spoken: look-y here, baby, I'm leavin' town!)
just 'bout a . . .
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I need)
that ol' . . .
(spoken: Don't make me mad, baby!)
'cause I want my . . .Hey baby, I'm a fool 'bout that...
(spoken: Look-y here, honey!)
I need that...
Most every man leaves without a...
Sundays' mean (spoken: I know they are)
'bout a . . .

Hey baby, (spoken: I'm sneakin' around here)
and ain't got me no . . .
Oh, that spoon', hey baby, you know I need my . . .

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Charlie Patton—Shake it and Break it  / Charlie Patton—Revenue Man Blues' (1934)

Charlie PattonGoing To Move To Alabama (1929) / Charlie Patton and Bertha Lee—Yellow Bee (1934)

Charlie PattonPoor Me (1934) / Charlie PattonI'm Goin' Home

Charlie Patton—Some These Days I'll Be Gone (1929) / Charlie Patton—When Your Way Gets Dark (1929)

Charlie Patton—You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Come to Die (1929)

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

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By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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posted 28 October 2007




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Blues as Secularized Spirituals  Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival   The Spiritual and the Blues  Living Legends  Listening to the Blues Is a Duty and Responsibility     Tell Me How Long Has the Essence Train Been Gone?